The Substance of Faith

The Substance of Faith

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Bucket Book – People of the Lie

In the 1980’s Scott Peck was one of the most popular authors writing in the self-help genre.  The Road Less Traveled became a small industry with follow up books like, Further Along the Road Less Traveled, Meditations from the Road Less Traveled, etc. I’ve read 5-6 Peck books, but none have had an impact as powerful as The People of the Lie.

The premise of the book is that there is a difference between moral failure and evil.  The difference is not a matter of degree; evil people do not simply sin more than bad people. The difference is in the intricate structures of denial that evil people build around themselves.  They build a self image of perfection and refuse to accept the possibility of their own error.  Peck points out that we can be forgiven and healed of any sin, except the sin of believing we have no sin, which is the problem with evil people.  As “malignant narcissists,” evil people destroy anyone and anything that gets in their way.  They do this because their sole motivation in life is to gain power.  Perhaps the most disturbing quality of evil individuals is their ability to portray a morally good aura around their lives.  On the surface they are good people, admired in the community, church, or civic club.

Peck’s theory sounds plausible in print, but it is utterly terrifying in real life.  The majority of evil people are not the obvious Hitler’s or drug dealers, waiting to steal the innocence of our children.  Rather, they are the respected neighbors, business leaders.  Or church leaders.

I learned this fact while interviewing with a search committee in the 1980’s.  The interview lasted over several weeks, with multiple trips by members of the search committee to visit me, and with my trips to their home turf.  The longer the discussions lasted, the more troubled I became.  I saw multiple dynamics in the committee and in the church that disturbed me.  On one of my last trips, I had the opportunity to meet with a man who had previously served on the church staff.  He and his wife greeted me in their home.  As we became more comfortable with each other, the couple began to recount times that they had been sabotaged and damaged by three main church leaders.  They painted a dark picture of half-lies, power grabs… and respectability.  I finally gained the nerve to ask if they had read People of the Lie.  The wife left the room and returned with a dog-eared, marked-up copy of Peck’s book.  She began to leaf through the pages, showing me where she had written the names of the three men in the margins.  Wherever one of these men seemed to illustrate Peck’s observations, she wrote his name beside the text.  The book was full of these three names.  I left their home and stopped the interview with the committee.  All congregations have wonderful members, as I’m sure does that particular church.  But over 30+ years, it also has a history of power-grabs and splits.  If only one-third of what that minister’s wife suspected was true….  Well, I understand the trajectory of that congregation’s history.

In my life I have known many people who are disagreeable, ornery, hateful, controlling, and selfish.  But I’ve only known three people that I would classify as evil – evil as defined in People of the Lie.  The most frightening thing about all three has been their respectability.  I wasn’t sure, if needed, I could get anyone to believe what I suspected about them.  Without Peck’s book, I might not have believed myself.

Ever since President Bush uttered his “axis of evil” comments, society has debated the use of the word “evil.”  Isn’t it a judgmental term?  Who has the right to declare another person or nation as “evil?”  For me the issue is not judgment; rather the issue is discernment.  And there are times when leaders must be discerning in order to know what they are facing.  Peck’s book has provided me with help in discerning the nature and motivation of individuals that I have considered evil.

If you find yourself wondering if the “evil” designation applies to someone in your life, search malignant narcissist or destructive narcissist on the internet.  I have come to believe that addictions are easier to overcome than extreme narcissistic tendencies.  I am not wise enough to know whether or not every malignant narcissist is evil, but they are usually dangerous.

People of the Lie does take some interesting twists in later chapters, particularly in regard to possession and exorcisms.  Before writing this review I skimmed the book again.  I find the chapters on possession and exorcism interesting, but outside my own experience.  Group evil is explored in a chapter on the My Lai massacre in the Viet Nam War.  Younger readers may not be able to relate to the alarming realization that American soldiers had the capacity for such brutality.  Consequently the impact of the massacre’s revelation to the public may be lost 40 years after the fact.

I often recommend this book to young ministers as a way of building a framework to recognize and address evil.  Although some question the later chapters, I have never had anyone say the book was not helpful.  People of the Lie has helped me in a few, critical junctures of life and I rate it as one of the 50 most influential books I’ve read.  Here are a few brief excerpts.

It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistence of their sins.  This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin, but the refusal to acknowledge it.  p. 69

The words “image,” “appearance,” and “outwardly,” are crucial to understanding the morality of evil.  While they  [evil individuals]  seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good.  Their goodness is on a level of pretense.  It is, in fact, a lie.  This is why they are “people of the lie.”  p. 75

 The evil deny the suffering of their guilt -the painful awareness of their sin, inadequacy, and imperfection, by casting pain onto others through projection and scapegoating.  They themselves may not suffer, but those around them do.  They cause suffering.  The evil create for those under their dominion a miniature sick society.  pp. 123ff


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